The Evolution of Visual Content Marketing: Looking Back 20 Years
The year is 2001. The first films from the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter series are duking it out at the box office. "Hanging by a Moment" by Lifehouse is the best-performing single of the year. And everyone is talking about this new gizmo from Apple called the iPod, which comes standard with a 5 GB hard drive that puts "1,000 songs in your pocket."
Most notably, America as we know it forever changes with the events taking place on the morning of Tuesday, September 11, 2001. They usher in a period of fear, patriotism, and a newfound focus on the human condition.
Similarly to 2020, the events of 2001 drive businesses to reconsider the way they interact with consumers and promote their products or services. When 2001 concludes, marketers reassess their marketing budgets and realize that there might be a better way to reallocate resources to achieve better results via the internet. The consumer-facing marketing content of 2001 reflects a community of marketers who are either stuck in their old ways or trying to figure out how internet marketing can accelerate their success to new heights.
Fast forward 20 years and, well, things have changed. Rather than slowly wearing down the public’s subconscious into submission via mass marketing campaigns, visual content marketing in 2021 leads with intentionality and seeks to establish symbiotic relationships between the brand and customer. Visual marketing content today is woven seamlessly into our everyday routines with the help of technology and information, and it’s a far cry from what it was just 20 years ago.
To better understand how we arrived at the dynamic marketing content of today, we asked experts who have watched the content marketing landscape evolve over the years, and have some astute predictions for what the future holds. Let's take a look back 20 years and examine how marketers conceived, created, distributed, and thought about content in 2001.
Manager of Partnerships Growth & Insights at Attentive
"In 2020, SMS was the only 'emerging technology' that marketers planned to increase their investment in. Today, over 50% of online retailers are engaging consumers with text message marketing to create personalized 1:1 experiences. There's a lot of pent-up demand from consumers—over 90% are interested in texting with brands, presenting marketers with a significant opportunity to grow a loyal audience and drive revenue."
How have marketers changed their marketing channel preferences?
Bananas for Banner Ads
The channels of focus for marketers in 2001 were wildly different than what we see today. To better understand the contrast, consider that Internet advertising spend accounted for only 3% of total U.S. ad spending in 2001. Compare that to 20% and 19% for direct mail and newspapers, respectively. Although the world was becoming more comfortable with the internet and technology was advancing rapidly for the time, banner ads were still the go-to advertising vehicle for advertisers, making up 36% of internet ad spend. 2001 was still several years away from the web-centric advertising strategies we see arise in the mid-2000s with the introduction of new platforms like YouTube, Linkedin, and Facebook. In fact, many brands were actively working to distance themselves from the internet in light of the uncertainty left by the dot-com bubble and subsequent slowdown. Although emerging eCommerce technologies and processes seemed revolutionary for the time, it would be many years before we saw the sophisticated, data-driven digital strategies that are commonplace today.
Can you just text it to me?
Spoiler alert: things have changed. Today, digital channels are the primary marketing vehicle for brands of all shapes and sizes. Although, direct mail is seeing a slight comeback as digital becomes more crowded by the day and marketers are looking to the mediums of yore for new opportunities. Throughout the first two decades of the century, we saw direct-to-consumer brands emerge and prove that a channel strategy entirely reliant on digital was, in fact, a feasible way forward. Currently, over 50% of marketers engage in SMS marketing. Back in the day, text messaging was still an emerging technology, compared to today when consumers actively desire to be text messaged by brands. Email has survived and accelerated further since 2001. Today, email is one of the primary channels for marketers looking to circumvent the impending privacy restrictions from big tech players in the advertising placement industry. Mediums that enable personalization at scale are the preferred path for most marketers these days. That's because the ability to connect on a one-to-one basis has proven to be more effective in achieving the desired results when compared to traditional channels like TV and print.
How has marketing content changed stylistically?
Can we make our logo bigger?
The marketing content of 2001 was built with a one-size-fits-all approach and related closely to the year's most prevalent channels.
Direct mail was the channel of choice for most marketers, resulting in highly polished content focused on specific offers or broad demographic attributes typically rooted in age, gender, and geography. Blogging became more prevalent in 2001, but it was still rare to see consumer-facing brands produce educational blog content for their customers. It was still uncommon to include a website URL in print ads, especially in the automotive and food & beverage industries. The marketing photography of 2001 was highly brand-driven. For example, brands prominently placed their logos where viewers couldn't ignore them, and the subject matter focused on the brand's unique attributes, such as BMW claiming they achieved “perfection” in reference to their new car (notice the complete lack of focus on the customer).
Because it was more challenging to test content and measure its success, many marketing campaigns tried to be consistent, humorous, edgy, or outside the box to create buzz and strong brand recall.
The truth helps
According to Unilever's former Senior Vice-President of Marketing, Marc Mathieu, "marketing used to be about creating a myth and selling it and is now about finding a truth and sharing it." The style of most of today's content is indicative of this statement. The marketing content you see today is all about using truth to connect with consumers. We see this in the popularity of user-generated content, customer reviews, educational content, and customer-centric content. Brands are relying on content that conveys real-life, authentic experiences as a means to resonate with today's consumers who have become skilled in rejecting any marketing messaging that's too promotional or "salesy." In addition to changing consumer preferences, new technology has made it far easier to include the customer in the conversation and use them to generate effective marketing content.
Dir. of Marketing at Daasity
"One of the most interesting shifts over the past ten years we should expect to accelerate is text overlays on photo and video. The value for content creators and brands to be able to provide instant context with short copy is going to accelerate as short attention platforms like TikTok, Youtube, and SMS become more prominent in brands Marketing mixes. As brands continue to push into these short-form mediums and the speed to test more creative options becomes more important, heavily investing in short catchy content will become a competitive advantage for brands that can take the same photo/video assets and quickly test the right copy pairing across channels."
Director of Content Marketing at Visiture
"20 years ago, 'content strategy' was nearly synonymous with 'blog.' For most brands, content was a nice-to-have or an afterthought unless they were explicitly aligned with an educational purpose, and based on something close to marketing intuition. A content strategy today needs to provide value at every stage of the customer journey, invite customers to build two-way, participatory relationships with your business through user-generated content and reviews, plug your brand into the wider industry conversation through influencer partnerships, and embrace data as the source of customer insights across the funnel that powers your content, not just informs it."
How have popular content marketing strategies changed?
Go big or go home
The strategic motives behind the marketing content created and distributed in 2001 were based primarily on the information available to marketers at the time. SEO strategies were becoming more refined, and Google AdWords had launched the year prior, offering the ability to target customers based on intent and serve personally relevant advertisements. However, the available audience was not as understood or as large as TV, magazine, and OOH advertising channels (now commonly referred to as “old media”.
Marketers prioritized large-scale marketing campaigns that featured celebrity endorsements, outside-the-box marketing messages, and creative that took months (or years) to craft. The objective of these campaigns was to get in front of a large number of people and hope your message and creative resonated with a large enough slice of the pie to deliver a positive return on investment. Because the stakes for failing on these campaigns were much more significant, they demanded most of a company's marketing budgets, personnel, and resources. As social media exploded through the rest of the decade, large-scale, one-to-many campaigns became less popular in favor of tactics that allowed for greater personalization.
Something for everyone
The most popular strategies for marketers today are rooted in the idea of personalization. Consumers have grown accustomed to having personalized, two-way relationships with the brands they do business with. To serve these highly personalized experiences, brands need hordes of customer data. Today's brands prioritize collecting data from their customers to connect with them at relevant times, speak to their specific problems, and provide them with more value along and beyond the buyer's journey.
Much of this data has solidified user-generated content as the optimal marketing content for most consumer-facing brands. The peer validation and social proof of user-generated content now replace the aspirational motivations of celebrity endorsements of 2001. With today's technology, marketers and data scientists alike can pinpoint specific marketing content types that will most likely drive the desired action throughout the buyer's journey. However, with the recent privacy updates from the companies (primarily Google and Apple) that essentially built the highly-targeted and cost-effective advertising products marketers survived on for the past 15 years, the future holds some uncertainty. Still, most experts agree that rich customer data and personalized experiences will be the way forward regardless of tightening privacy restrictions.
How has content production changed?
Work it for me, Britney
As previously touched on, businesses in 2001 built marketing campaigns that cast a wide net to capture the attention of as many people within a target audience as possible. Because of this, the primary messaging and creative content was developed and refined over months. Marketing departments brought in models, celebrities, highly-regarded photographers, and elaborate sets to capture the essence of the brand in a way that would convince consumers that they needed the brand's products to feel a certain way or achieve a particular image. Marketers repurposed highly-polished, curated photography across websites, magazines, and billboards - produced with little concern for the channel it would eventually appear on. Graphic design was a popular tool but still required expertise and training to create even the most basic designs. Content turnaround times felt like eons compared to the speed of today.
Smartphones: a marketer’s best friend
Every time you snap a photo on your iPhone and post it to your Instagram, you're humiliating the content production process of 2001. A post of equal quality in 2001 would've required an expensive, high-tech camera and photo-editing software - both of which come standard on basically every smartphone today. At the beginning of the millennium, art departments and marketing departments were siloed.
Today, brand and performance marketers can use the technology at their disposal to create high-quality, campaign-specific marketing assets in a matter of minutes. On top of that, brands today rely on their customers to produce the authentic marketing collateral they need in the form of user-generated content.